All of the Bunian Empress’s lizard bomohs, and all of her crocodile-men could not make a spell strong enough to get rid of two lumps. 1.5 centimetres in diameter, perfectly shaped and coyly lodged beneath fat and tissue. No, the only thing that would work would be the severing of your head from your body, and learning how to pickle yourself like any good penanggalan would.
You auto-rejected yourself from communities, from relationships, from jobs that you were sure were going to rob you of your light and your capacity for joy. And now, it seems as though your body has decided to auto-reject you from life. The light and joy left years ago.
This was going to be a tale about you auto-rejecting yourself from love, but that is the same thing, is it not? At least the metaphysical poets that you read in college with all of their Occidental phlegm and authority would have you believe that. You either had love, or you had death. To live meant to be exposed to the possibility of acceptance, and therefore rejection. To auto-reject yourself from one, meant to auto-reject yourself from another. Besides, you’ve always been more terrified of acceptance and all that would entail.
All of the Empress’s owl-sisters, all of the djinns of the earth, could not stitch your sinew and tissue back together again. All of the owl-sisters with their nightly ululations, male entrails spilled in a bloody trail in mimicry of the penanggalan’s delicately vinegared coils, could not remove the tumours. Surgeons could. Or would. But in your head, the denial had already occurred. There was no way this was going to be benign. The same way there was no way you were going to get that copywriting job at that advertising firm, the same way there was no way Vinod was for real. You had auto-rejected yourself from all possibilities.
Auto-rejecting from the possibility of living past another birthday was therefore a fitting outro for the LP of your life.
If you can hear them, it is beyond belief that anyone could stay up after midnight in Kuala Lumpur without being aware of the unloving songs the owl-sisters sing. You have never been able not to hear their songs. Not the loudest punk-rock albums, not even the hardcore screamo masterpieces that caused your Uncles to howl at you to keep the volume down. Not meditation. Not masturbation. Nothing could stop you from hearing the music of the penanggalans since you hit puberty.
You were born here, and you grew up in Brickfields, poised in-between the gentrification, and the run-down apartments pushed further back by encroaching structures of glass and steel. You walked to college past rank trashcans close by KL Sentral to get to your A-Level classes, where the disconnect between learning the literatures of the Commonwealth and the reality of where you lived became a source of constant precocious amusement for you and your classmates. You lived with your Uncles and your siblings because your mother had murdered your father. You lived with your Uncles who had trapped your ravaging mother with jampi and pineapple skins.
Your siblings have all moved to other, more affordable cities. You live in an apartment complex so grimly different from the luxury condominium projects near Pantai that the name condominium emblazoned on a dirt-grimed banner hung between posts at the entrance is a mockery of the inhabitants. Those inhabitants drag themselves out of bed every morning to perform their ablutions, their prayers, and to move about doing the jobs that rarely get filmed or advertised. Like you as you silently walk every morning towards the small photocopying and design business run by your Uncles, adjacent to your teen-hood home.
You moved out to return to your Uncles the privacy they gave up to look after your siblings and you, ignoring the sidelong glances and the gossip to raise a family as best they could. You spend every day of your life with them. You throw yourself into an existence in which you do everything that needs to be done in a family business, from the typesetting to the balancing of the books, to playing Chinese Checkers with the Uncles at coffee break.
The irony of living a life in which you clear-sightedly believe in horrors is that you cannot bring yourself to believe in everyday wonders apart from your gentle Uncles. It is fine to believe that the penanggalans lurk in the trashcans behind your apartment complex for example, even though the penanggalans are mostly fastidious horrors, and it is logically hard to believe they would sleep there at all. It is fine to believe that a crocodile-man actually lurks in the moss-murked swimming pool in your complex, so dank that no one actually swims there apart from you.
The crocodile-man does occasionally swim lazy laps next to you while you try to ignore the scaled tail that demurely grazes your legs. This is why you should never swim at dusk, but you’ve never been able to obey such edicts. Nor are you able to observe other injunctions. It is easier to believe that if you are foolhardy enough to want to eat ice kacang after midnight at a certain roadside stall, you should never look over your shoulder if there is a soft blowing in your ear. It is easier to believe these things because you could see them, feel them, hear them. It is not so easy to believe in a more conventional afterlife, or in a more conventional love.
There are other reasons why the owl-sisters do not harm you. There is a reason why you can see them, and hear them. There is a reason why the penanggalans leave you alone. They don’t tell you this, do they? That penanggalans had children, that some of those children survived, that the call of the blood reaches out to them. Because penanggalans were humans, or are humans, and detaching your head from your body is a secret that was passed down to you, along with an extensive knowledge of pickling. You could believe in all of those things. Easily. What you cannot believe in is the ability of human consciousness to survive the death of the body. That there are other forms of life there is no doubt. But one will always be translated beyond recognition. And there it waits for you. The incommensurability of one’s belief in horrors and one’s disbelief in wonders. Everyday wonders. Like friendship. Like acceptance, like Vinod actually returning your interest.
No, the time for that was past, many years ago. Many years ago beyond count.
You are quite sure that being descended from a penanggalan means that you are also an erotomaniac. That is how it always begins. You fall in love, you are disappointed because it is all in your head. This disappointment transmutes, turning into a jilting, an actionable slight. You start making unholy pacts. You are translated, you start growing claws and fangs. Drag out entrails from the husk of your body and sing your long, lonesome, ululating song at 3am, because you always, always fall in love with your prey, when you are not feasting on the afterbirth of unfortunate mothers.
This holds true even if you marry your prey, and then discover that they are on the verge of divorcing you.
This is how you became an orphan, after all.
You have two options, really. You could wait for the biopsy report, or you could give in to the imperative of your blood. To invoke, to transform, to pull, to draw in, to be consumed, and then to consume. One could say this was predestined from the moment you walked into the bedroom where your mother’s floating head was making a meal out of the remains of your father’s mutilated body.
Or, you could wait for the rejection slip from the surgeon.
You could wait to be told if you are going to be given another chance to self-reject at friendship, at love, at jobs. At happiness. To have another ten or twenty years of being a reject and sad fuck-up, incapable of aspiring for more than this life by the river, and pining after a man who has barely spoken ten sentences to you in all of the time that you have known him.
Because you belong to the night and all of its monstrosities, because you are trash by inheritance and by circumstance. You are deemed trash, even though, like all potential penanggalans, you are excessively fastidious and use antibacterial soap on everything.
The trashcan is a metaphor, you think. There is no earthly way midwives who turn into penanggalans would sleep in trashcans.
If the trashcan is a metaphor, then Vinod is a plot device.
You learned about plot devices in college, and later, during overpriced writing courses you took to compensate for the fact that you could not afford university fees. You tell yourself this to convince yourself that what you felt was not love, that it was a mere frisson. When you think about him, you can hear in your head the song the penanggalans sing when they’re trying to win you over to their camp. He will only hurt you, maim you, put his mark upon you. They sing this song every time you walk past the trashcans lining the outside of your apartment complex, the pungent smell of the refuse of multiple apartments hitting your nose as you step down from the bus that stops in front of the guardhouse at 11:45pm.
Vinod is a plot device like Jeremy before him, and Ramli before that. All of your unrequited loves, all of your potential victims, rescued from meeting the fate one meets upon falling in love with someone descended from a waking horror. You convince yourself you are doing the right thing, even if Vinod’s voice and his dark, hurt eyes follow your thoughts like a pet jaguar you never knew you had. One you would want to keep and cherish for all of the years of your joint existence. Because his eyes are as old and as wild as your soul, as the songs you hear at 3am. Because he’s been a haunting at the back of your mind for over a decade.
You’ve already started keeping bottles of vinegar in your kitchen just in case, just in case you decide one day to take that path.
Be immortal like us, the penanggalans sing to you in their nocturnal ululations. You will not die, you will fly, and when the feeding is done, there will be starsong to imbibe, there are owl-sisters who will dance with you, because the condemned will always flock together. If you learn to fly high enough and to keep your entrails untangled, if your breath remains vinegary sweet, you will be allowed to reach the floating wooden palaces of the Bunian Empire. You will enjoy the sweetness of blood and the savour of flesh, and you will be young forever. Perhaps the Empress will recruit you to her army, and you will live in the skies, transformed into an apsara. Perhaps you will even be appointed as a laksamana someday. It is a beautiful story. A far more beautiful story than the reality of medical tests, and yet more tests. It seems far more feasible, in your grief, than the possibility of driving yourself to and fro from chemotherapy because your Uncles are too old and frail. Everyone else who loved you has gone away. It seems more feasible than succumbing to surgery and radiation while drowning in unleavened solitude.
Love is a beautiful story too. It is one you croon to yourself as a fairytale of sorts, to keep out the darkness, to have your mind ignoring the smell of the refuse piling up behind your apartment building, of the roaches that inhabit the dark when the fluorescent lights go out. The roaches that are part of the unseen army that plagues your nights and the edges of your consciousness.
You write this down two tables away from where he is laughing with his friends, insensible of your presence, for you are stealthy in your perpetual mortification caused by agonies of love-feelings. When Vinod laughs, his face is like a lamp that someone suddenly turned on. It offsets his grim sobriety on other occasions. The contrast is intoxicating. It draws you, every time you are in the same space. It makes you feel like an unwilling stalker. It makes you wonder if there is a line that normal people cross. But you are far from normal and you know that. The light that shines from his face is far more intoxicating than the promise of starsong, and of the sticky sweetness of afterbirth. You could so easily draw that light from his face with a penanggalan’s elongated tongue. That light could bring you to the singing stars. Was that why your mother made such a thorough meal of your father?
You contemplate the painful reality of cancer versus the eternal exquisite torment of a career of murder and pickling your entrails. You would only choose the best, of course. You have splurged on bottles of apple cider vinegar, and white wine vinegar. Both types are lightly astringent and not unpleasant. For another hundred years so you can walk upon this earth as predator, not prey. You would not have to sleep in a trashcan, not when you would be in the court of the Bunian Empress.
You write this to avoid looking at the blunt, sure lines of his face, so familiar and yet so alien. You think of all of the things you might have said to him, might have done to make it all better, to turn it all normal. You think of all of the ways you have avoided further contact, avoiding his face, avoiding his eyes, avoiding all memory of shared hopes and dreams.
Once upon a sliver of far-too-distant time, his eyes had been voluntarily on yours, and everything could have been so different had you not auto-rejected yourself from the unfamiliar, from the risk of exposure and failure.
You slap the cover of your tablet shut and pay your bill. You walk back into the dank and pungent night. You are far from normal, but you are not, you think, a murderer. You were raised by two men who loved each other very much, and who taught you that enduring love exists in this world, and that sacrifice was a part of love.
You auto-reject yourself from immortality to keep the light glowing in his eyes.
Because of course, that is what you would do. Because the blasted metaphysical poets have taught you well, have injected their diseased philosophies into your consciousness far more insidiously than the starsong the penanggalans sing.
This story was first published in Trash: A Southeast Asian Urban Anthology, edited by Dean Francis Alfar and Marc de Faoite (Fixi Novo, Malaysia, 2016). It is reproduced here with kind permission.
Story copyright © 2016 by Nin Harris
Artwork copyright © 2017 by Pear Nuallak
Nin Harris is an author, poet, and tenured postcolonial Gothic scholar who exists in a perpetual state of unheimlich. Nin writes Gothic fiction, cyberpunk, nerdcore post- apocalyptic fiction, planetary romances, and various other forms of hyphenated weird fiction. Nin’s publishing credits include Clarkesworld, Uncanny Magazine, Strange Horizons, and Lightspeed. Nin is currently seeking representation for Watermyth, the first novel of the Cantata of the Fourfold Realms mythic clockpunk fantasy sequence.
Pear Nuallak looks to their Thai heritage and the many faces of women to create words and images. They’ve contributed illustrations to The SEA Is Ours and The Future Fire.